From natural to post-natural


John Hunter, Mrs Morgan's Florilegium, transit of Venus, Natalie Waddell,

“It was once the pastime of gentlemen: collecting curious plant and animal specimens from around the world, displaying them in home or garden and regaling callers with tales of their exotic origins.

“Nowadays, it seems there’s little new left for us to discover. Humans have penetrated nearly every possible corner of the world. But we are still finding new critters, by making our own: breeding mules, grafting colourful plants and engineering lab mice that glow.”

This is how NewScientist introduces a story about the recent opening of a new museum in Pittsburgh called the Center for PostNatural History. Its founder, a teacher at Carnegie Mellon University, believes we have moved beyond a world of natural history into an era of “post-natural history.”

The centre is “dedicated to the research and exhibition of life-forms that have been intentionally altered by humans, from the dawn of domestication to contemporary genetic engineering.”

“Humans have been slowly domesticating plants and animals for thousands of years and during the last 35 years we’ve begun altering the DNA of organisms in very specific ways,” says founder Richard Pell. “A good portion of the living world is in a sense a cultural artefact reflecting the desires, needs and fears of human society.”

The museum chronicles our history of manipulating nature, spanning early experiments in selective breeding through to the kind of modern genetic engineering that has produced the fluorescent GloFish above – the only genetically engineered animal sold as a domestic pet in the US.

The centre aims to create a “curiosity cabinet” of “living, preserved and documented specimens of post-natural origin.”

Its opening comes as directors David Cronenberg and Sam Raimi begin work on an adaptation of The Knife Man, Wendy Moore’s biography of the eighteenth century Scottish surgeon John Hunter.

The pair plans to develop a TV drama about the pioneering anatomist whose often-controversial experiments broke new ground in fields including crossbreeding, dentistry, transplants, foetal development, circulation, the treatment of gunshot wounds and venereal diseases.

Hunter became fascinated with lizards, in particular the way in which they could regenerate their tails, and the way in which nature deviates from the norm – as embodied by his beloved two-tailed lizard.

He kept animals including a lion, leopards and zebra at his country home in Earls Court and used to ride through the streets of London in a cart drawn by Asiatic buffalo.

His experiments included grafting a dog’s tooth into a cockerel’s comb and a cockerel’s testicle into the belly of a hen, as well as freezing fish in the hope of reanimating them.

Hunter owned a half-dog, half-wolf and conducted a number of his own attempts at crossbreeding dogs, wolves and jackals in an effort to determine whether or not they were of the same species.

His work earned him the title of the father of scientific surgery.

He was a voracious collector and his own cabinet of curiosities in Leicester Square at one time housed nearly 14,000 preparations of over 500 species of plants and animals – the remnants of which now form the basis of the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons in Lincoln’s Inn Fields.

Hunter would have been the fascinated by the GloFish, by genetic engineering, and the Center for PostNatural History – though the new Pittsburgh museum has some way to go before cataloguing the post-natural world to the extent that Hunter recorded the natural.

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